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Friday 14 Dec 2018 | 07:49 | SYDNEY
Friday 14 Dec 2018 | 07:49 | SYDNEY

Indonesia-Australia: Act naturally



30 July 2013 10:17

Melissa Conley Tyler is National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Rosalie Pitt is an AIIA intern.

One the highlights of Prime Minister Rudd's visit to Indonesia earlier this month was Q&A Jakarta.

The idea to film an episode of this influential ABC panel show in Jakarta came directly out of the Indonesia-Australia Dialogue 2013, a prime ministerial and presidential initiative to build greater people-to-people links organised by the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Jakarta.

Appropriately, the last word in the episode was from the tireless champion of Indonesia-Australia relations, Professor Tim Lindsey. His parting words: 'We are actually natural strategic partners and are going to be forced into this partnership, whether we like it or not'.

Tim's logic is irrefutable, but he would be the first to admit that this vision is not yet a reality. Both Australia and Indonesia need to learn to be natural partners.

A good example is in the way Australia and Indonesia interact in regional and international forums such as the G20. With Australia hosting the G20 Summit next year, the potential for cooperation has been a topic of interest for both Australian and Indonesian audiences.

Over the last month I've interviewed officials from both governments to get a sense of the potential for collaboration in the G20 and how much has occurred so far.

It is clear that the potential for collaboration is almost unlimited. According to one interviewee, 'there is no area in the G20 that couldn't offer itself for cooperation.' Australia and Indonesia share a number of interests at the G20, most obviously in growth and jobs. There are areas where they share a commitment to fairness, such as IMF voting reform and tax reform. There are also areas of potential mutual benefit, such as anti-corruption, climate change financing and the development agenda.

To give a concrete example, the G20 agenda includes reforms to promote infrastructure investment: this has great potential for Indonesia as it seeks to escape the middle-income trap, and is an economic opportunity for Australia. Interestingly, there is a view among some officials that Australia's approach is consonant with Indonesia's; that it 'sees the world more like a developing country'.

However, while there is great potential for collaboration it is clear that this potential remains largely unfulfilled. Indonesia, in particular, has pressing domestic issues that rightly take up much of its focus. Initially Indonesia may have viewed itself as a member of the G20 'as of right' rather than seeing its seat at the table as an opportunity for advocacy. And in the past, Indonesia may have been less comfortable playing a leadership role outside of ASEAN.

Today the barriers may be more operational ones. In the G20, there are no automatic partners, thus efforts must be made to create coalitions on each issue. To make progress, attention is needed by both area experts and charismatic leaders, both of which are in short supply. And for Indonesia, hosting APEC this year, there are competing demands. Maria Monica Wihardja has written on the need for capacity-building so that Indonesia can take a greater leadership role in the G20.

The thing that makes cooperation with Australia more difficult is the wider context of the relationship, especially the continuing lack of warmth in public feeling, as shown in the Lowy Institute's latest poll.

The current situation is a lost opportunity for both countries. Where Indonesia and Australia collaborate, they are likely to be more effective, particularly because the relationship cuts across traditional developed-developing country divides. This carries significant weight in international forums. When Indonesia and Australia speak with one voice, this has strong symbolic power that can't easily be dismissed.

What is needed above all is a change of perception. As Tim Lindsey noted, 'Indonesia and Australia are not yet fully aware that they're actually natural partners.' For Australia, the challenge is to leave behind its parochialism and begin to see Indonesia as 'More Than Beef, Boats & Bali', to borrow the title of the Q&A episode. Instead, as Susan Harris Rimmer advocates, Australia needs to see Indonesia as a rising leader and try to develop strategy as two of the pivotal powers in the region. For Indonesia, the challenge will be to see Australia as more than the local branch office of 'the West' and find the time, attention and resources needed to play a leadership role.

It will be a learning process on both sides.

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